Our little B&B in Granada proved to be a perfect base for exploring the city and a great environment to recharge our batteries. With a stream of interesting guests and friends stopping by, there was always someone new to meet and, when we weren’t socializing (did I mention the Friday night pizza party?), we had plenty of time to visit the local sights and get to know the neighbourhood a bit.
The city itself really is a colonial gem (you know the story…beautiful cathedral on the nice square with a museum…) but, for us, the highlight of our stay was a kayak trip through Las Isletas, a smattering of some 365 tiny islands just off the shore of Granada in Lake Nicaragua. With a base of volcanic rock, the Isletas are now covered in lush vegetation and teeming with life. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable. He pointed out various species of birds and led us to see a colony of long nosed bats residing near the base of a large tree in and among some fishing boats.
We also saw that the islands are home to many people and the economic diversity of this country is very pronounced here. Some islands had small villages where groupings of small wood and tin huts could be seen and the local fishermen were out, hand lining from the shores of the islands. In stark contrast to this, other islands are large, privately owned estates, serving as vacation homes for Nicaragua’s elite and wealthy expats.
My favourite part of this trip, though, was our visit to Monkey Island. Owned by a veterinarian, this island has become a sanctuary for pet monkeys that were surrendered by their owners. They have been on the island for years now (and are even procreating) but they are still quite tame and clearly expect to be regularly fed by the local guides.
After our stay in Granada, we decided to check out Laguna de Apoyo. We had only intended to stay one night at this crystal clear volcanic lake but it was too gorgeous to leave so soon and one night quickly became two. We camped at a hostel and, in addition to clean bathrooms and a great common area, our camping fees included free kayak use, a beautiful beach and endless free coffee and tea (a happy bonus). We also met another group of overlanders while we were here. Marshall and Heather had left Cranbrook, BC a month or so after we started our trip and are planning to drive to the tip of South America. It was fun to chat and compare notes on the people we’d met, roads we’d driven and random weird things we’d seen.
Our next stop was Ometepe Island. Located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe is a lush green island with twin volcanoes (one of which is still quite active). We have purposely tried to keep this trip unplanned but when Dave and I were still back at home reading our guide books, the island made our list of “must-see destinations”. After some discussion, we decided to ferry the truck over as well. We had considered leaving it onshore but transit on the island was reportedly unreliable, accommodations with the dog always tricky, and the locals advised us that it would be easier to explore the island this way.
Buying our tickets for the ferry would prove to be another lesson in complicating even the simplest of tasks… When we drove up to the terminal, a tourism assistant (at least that’s what his shirt said) approached us and led us to another woman sitting at a local restaurant. She had a book of tickets but first she wanted to see our truck and determined that it was “grande”. Our next stop was her office where she proceeded to pull out several stacks of paper. She encouraged us to book our return passage now, though we could not understand why. We didn’t really want to commit to a specific day and time but she was insistent that we do it in case the boat was full later on. We agreed after she explained that we could change it with a phone call. We later learned that it was watermelon season on the island and the loaded trucks could easily fill a ferry. We paid our fees and received a ticket with carbon for the trip to the island and just a ticket for the return; then she sold us two separate passenger tickets for the trip (just one-way, these couldn’t be pre-booked). Next we were sent over to the port office to pay a separate port tax, (another receipt). Finally it was back to the original gate to pay a municipal tax (one way so we would again need to pay this on the way out) and got another receipt. In all, this process probably took us about 45 minutes, we had dealt no less than 4 people and we now had seven of the ten scraps of paper we would need to complete our return journey. It was as we were walking back to the truck that our “assistant” asked for his tip….( no receipt).
In any case, we made it on the boat and Chester wasted no time in making himself comfortable and making friends with anyone that seemed likely to give him a pet. The ride took about an hour but the water was blessedly calm. Our biggest concern was that the ferry would prove sound enough to make it. Shortly after we’d loaded, one of the engine panels was removed (presumably to cool it?) and it remained this way for the duration of the passage. We also noted that a car alarm was going off on the vehicle in front of ours. However, as is always the case at home, no one seemed concerned.
We chose to ignore it along with everyone else and just enjoy the ride. The view of the twin volcanoes as we approached Ometepe was spectacular.
As we pulled into port, we realized that perhaps someone should have been paying attention to the car alarm as the battery was now dead. The solution? Round up the nearest 5…8…no actually 11 men to push the vehicle up the ramp and off of the boat. I tried not to be too alarmed when the car started rolling back towards us after the first two failed attempts.
After disembarking, we found our campsite at a hostel on the outskirts of town. Surprisingly, hostels have turned out to make great campsites (Dave’s edit: and Kristel has developed a sixth sense in choosing hostels just far enough from the centre of town to be large enough to allow parking). There are good bathrooms, good common areas, often have wifi and they are open to pets.
Since it was raining the following day, we decided to jump in the truck and explore the other side of the island. We were hoping to check out the beach, attempt a volcano hike or kayak if the weather cleared. As we drove along, though, the steady drizzle continued. We were a little depressed by the rain and, as most of the tour operators were based out of hotels, we decided to check into one for the night. If the weather turned good, it would be easy to squeeze in some beach time or go for a paddle. If not, at least we could amuse ourselves by channel surfing the countless “telenovelas” and spanish dubbed episodes of CSI. Thankfully, the sun did come out for a while and we passed a pleasant afternoon on the beach and reading on the veranda of our little cabana.
This did not last, though. At around five, it started raining again and by six, the rain was a steady heavy downpour. It was so intense that it was impossible to even make the short dash from our cabana to the main building without getting completely drenched. A couple hours later, we lost electricity and by nine that evening, we had water coming in at several places in the roof. The lobby was already shut down, but the security guard was able to track down some extra towels, and we set up an elaborate system of towels and dog dishes to catch the water before going to bed for the night.
Neither of us were getting a lot of sleep (sleeping under a leaking tin roof in a downpour is harder than you may realize) and when I awoke at two in the morning, I decided I may as well use the bathroom. As I stepped out of bed, my foot dropped into about three inches of water. I woke Dave and grappled for the iPhone to use as a light (our real flashlight was stowed safely away in the camper). We took stock:
• our dog dish water catchers were floating;
• the water appeared to be backing up from the shower drain;
• no power or water(in the taps) in the room; and
• Chester was laying quietly in his now sopping wet bed.
We quickly packed up and dashed over to the main building to talk to the (now sleeping) security guard. After some grogginess and confusion, we communicated the issue. I have to confess that we were exhausted and pretty much all of our Spanish eluded us. In the end, it was Dave’s pantomiming skills that really drove the point home. After sprinting to our cabana to confirm the state of affairs there, he grabbed keys for the one next door. It felt like something out of a comedy when I saw the water rushing out of the door as he swung it open. This did not look like a good alternative either. We sprinted back to the lobby area and were told to wait there as he grabbed a fistful of keys in search of a dry room. Some time later (20-30 min?), he returned with a grin and a solution. Apparently there was at least one dry room. It was a fair distance from the main building so we sprinted from one cabana veranda to the next as we made our way over. It was during this last “run” that Chester chose to launch his protest. Completely drenched and apparently uninterested in entering the downpour once more, he parked himself under the covered porch of a rejected cabana and stubbornly refused to budge. It was only with major encouragement from both of us that we got him and us into perhaps the only dry room in the place. After squeezing in a couple hours of precious fitful sleep, we checked out and vowed that water tightness would be a key criterion for any future accommodations.
As we drove away from the hotel, we began to see that the rainstorm had indeed been severe (we later learned that 14 inches of rain had fallen that night). Rocks, debris and even trees littered the road. The ditches were flowing full and the water had carved new ditches where none had existed. Utility lines were exposed. However, it wasn’t until we came across a large landslide covering the road that we realized the extent of the damage. From our inquiries, we learned that the road was impassable except on foot and that there had been several landslides. A few motorcyclists were making it through but even they were walking their bikes to get through the rough sections. One biker we talked to simply described the road as “broken”. We also learned from one of the walkers that the impacts of the storm and subsequent landslides were really tragic for islanders. At least one small child had died and a number of families’ homes were buried in mud and rubble.
We came across several of these houses a short distance down the road. Some neighbours had gathered to help salvage and load personal belongings onto a flatbed truck. We did our best to help with the salvage effort and load some items but it was very hard to feel like we were doing much good. To my North American eyes, nothing looked truly salvageable. The wooden bed frames, clothes and small appliances were coated in muck and looked more like a public health risk than something to be salvaged. Worse yet, emotions were running high. As foreigners, we also felt a bit intrusive and the people seemed more comfortable with the help of neighbours than that of strangers. As more people showed up to pitch in, we decided to back off. We brought some water to the guys loading the truck and then went into the closest town to see if we could get news there.
It was obvious that we were stranded, at least for a day or two. There was no hope of making it back to Moyagalpa (the island’s port town) in time for our ferry so we changed our reservation and set about finding a place to stay for the night. We settled on the only place in town that was clean and dry and still had power and water … our camper. With a lack of any more appealing options, we parked at the town square and set up camp. It felt a bit conspicuous but, whether it was the quietness of the town or just our own physical exhaustion, we slept extremely well.
Given the condition of the road, and complete lack of traffic from Moyagalpa, we assumed we would be spending a few days camped out at the town square. However, our hopes were raised when we saw several military trucks roll in around noon. When we inquired, one driver told us that they were letting truck traffic through but no cars or micro-buses.
We were talking over whether we should try the road now or wait longer when a small boy approached the camper. He had come by to ask what we were selling. Apparently, we had hung around long enough that people assumed we were just another vendor. It seemed like a sign. It was time to go. We bought a few supplies (critical things like pop and chips) and set off for what we expected to be a slow drive.
As we were nearing the first major slide area, a white land rover flew by us (he must have also heard that the road was open). However, the “smoothed” section of the landslide was only wide enough for one vehicle and as we came up to the blockage, it was obvious that he didn’t consider the possibility of oncoming traffic. We got to watch as he awkwardly tried to reverse his vehicle back down the uneven terrain. We decided that we would not put ourselves in a similar fix. I would walk ahead to check the path in any of the ugly sections.
A local woman approached us hoping to catch a ride to town with her large sack full of vegetables. We explained that there wasn’t much room in the cab but if she was ok sitting in the back seat with Chester, she was welcome. This seemed agreeable to her and she hopped in. We traversed the first couple sections slowly and uneventfully. It wasn’t until we got to the third landslide section that a man in a white pickup truck told us we should not continue. We weren’t sure whether he was part of the road crew or just a concerned citizen but he seemed to think our camper was too high and that we could roll it on the uneven terrain. From what we could see, this was more level than either of the landslide sections we had just traversed so we were determined to continue on. Going back also didn’t seem like a great alternative. In his most diplomatic manner, Dave grinned broadly at the man, nodded, pointed forward and said “we’re going there”. This either seemed sufficient or the fellow decided we were beyond hope. In any case, he shrugged his shoulders and let us through.
Less than 24 hours later, we had boarded the ferry and landed back on shore. We aimed the truck towards San Juan del Sur and ended up at the Casa Bahia bed and breakfast near beautiful Playa Marsella. With a room on the second of three floors, we deemed our odds of staying dry to be quite good. With a floor above us, roof leaks wouldn’t get to us and with a floor below us, flood waters would need to be pretty high before they would reach us. With a beautiful beach just a 5 minute walk away, it seemed like a perfect retreat.